It is possible to spend a small fortune on technical support. We explain how to get everything you will ever need - without having to pay
The knowledge required to troubleshoot even simple computer problems explains why technical support is a thriving industry – and it is possible to spend silly money trying to find a fix. But paying for help should really be a last resort. With the web on hand and some insider knowledge about where to look, all but the most complex of computer problems can be put right – and it will not cost a penny.
Many computer problems are surprisingly easy to fix, usually because they are not really ‘problems’ at all. The excitement (or even bewilderment) that comes with setting up a new gadget, for example, can make it easy to overlook such simple things as switching it on or properly connecting it to the computer. So always check plug sockets, power switches and both ends of any connecting cables when new hardware does not work properly from the start.
Problems that arise only after new hardware has been added are best dealt with by backtracking; remove the new hardware and re-install the old, if necessary. If Microsoft Word started to randomly crash only after extra memory was installed and the problem disappears when the memory modules are removed, for example, then the culprit is clear, even if the precise cause remains a mystery.
Windows System Restore means it is also possible to ‘rewind’ a computer’s state when a new program or update causes a problem. In Windows 7, make sure it is enabled by selecting System and Security, System then System protection in Control Panel (from the Start menu), and then clicking the Configure button to ensure the ‘Restore system settings and previous versions of files’ radio button is enabled.
In Windows Vista, the option is found in Control Panel in System and Maintenance, System and System protection (there is no Configure button). In Windows XP, it is under Accessories, then System Tools on the Start menu.
Similar basic checks apply when troubleshooting internet-related issues and these should always start with the internet connection. Most routers have one or more status lights that show when a broadband connection is active. A router restart is usually a quick remedy for a connection that does not appear to be working (routers can crash, just like computers).
Remember that internet services providers (ISPs) can also suffer from technical trouble and an unresponsive connection might be caused by problems with its network. Most ISPs have a service status web page to check this, although a 3G smartphone might be needed to reach it if broadband is not working - so bookmarking it for later reference is a good idea. Similarly, if a particular web page will not open, do not assume the web browser, router or internet connection is at fault. The site itself could be suffering in some way, so always check it with the www.isup.me service.
Check hardware in Device Manager
If hardware appears to be connected and set up properly, but still does not work as expected, the chances are that a Windows configuration problem is to blame. This can sometimes be confirmed by checking the hardware’s status in Device Manager, which is opened by right-clicking the Computer icon on the Windows Desktop (or the Start menu), selecting Properties and for Windows Vista and 7, clicking Device Manager in the left of the window that opens. In Windows XP, click the Hardware tab on the System Properties window that opens, then click Device Manager.
Any hardware that appears in Device Manager with an exclamation mark next to its name has a problem and this is almost always caused by its driver. Thankfully, Device Manager makes it easy to update a driver, or in the case of a recent faulty update, restore an earlier working version. You can read our in-depth explanation of how to troubleshoot problems using Device Manager and there is also a Windows 7-specific follow-up.
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